Space Technology- A Graphic Footnote

July 25, 2009

“…Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword
.”  Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1839

In 1870 literary critic Edward Sherman Gould wrote that Bulwer-Lytton “had the good fortune to do, what few men can hope to do: he wrote a line that is likely to live for ages.”

170 years later Bulwer-Lytton is remembered more as the author of the famous opening lines “It was a dark and stormy night.” via the eponymous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (When Charles Schultz was working for Peanuts, this was Snoopy’s favorite opening gambit when he tried to get his creative canine writing juices flowing.).     

But if, metaphorically, the pen is mightier than the sword, what about the power of the humble and now almost forgotten pencil? It played a hitherto unsung role in the Russian side of the space race equation in the 1960s.

While the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949 was a technicolor complication ( a new Oriental Yellow Peril mixed with the Marxist Red Threat to produce a potentially ominous  new strain of political contagion,  the dreaded Orange Menace)  it was the Russians who remained the main Red Flag standard bearers and the main threat.

The Russians, of course, got away to a flying start with the first satellite, Sputnik I in October 1957, and a month later, with Laika, the first dog in space, (who didn’t get to live to write her autobiography because she only had a single ticket to ride).  Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space in April 1961. He had a return ticket. 

All this was was a seismic shock to the American military industrial complex and the country’s education system. It wasn’t even half-time and the score was Russian Communism 3, The Free World 0.

The John Kennedy-inspired Moon landing at the end of the 60s decisively altered the balance.

But American high tech did not have all the answers in what had been a space game of two halves. When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that pens wouldn’t work at zero gravity because ink won’t flow down to the writing surface. To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million.

They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.   

 And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

History does not record whether it was a red one, but  the writing stick has a long and ueful history. According to Wikipaedia the archetypal pencil was probably the stylus, which was a thin metal stick, often made from lead and used for scratching in papyrus. The word pencil comes from the Latin word pencillus which means “little tail”.

In the 16th century an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. This remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought, erroneously, to be a form of lead. There was, in fact, no lead in any pencils.

The modern digital age, with its hyperactive collective thumb, eschews the pencil, but my generation can still recall the look, feel (and taste) of a coveted HB (“H” for hard and “B” for black , our tool of choice for literacy development. The Deluxe model had a rubber attached as the delete option.

If pushed we can also almost remember the Latin for Bulwer-Lytton’s penmanship adage: Calamvs Gladio Fortior!


A fascinating history of the pencil and some notable pencil users:

More pencil jottings:

Past non-parsed paragraphs from the Bulwer-Lytton Awards:

Digitised Graphics: Snoopy vs. The Red Baron (Snoopy’s Christmas) (CC)

Moon Talk-The 40th

July 20, 2009

Ok-what were the first words broadcast from the Moon’s surface after the first real moon walk 40 years ago today? 

No, not Neil Armstrong’s famous prefabricated and misquoted words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Only recently have sound engineers managed to pick up the missing indefinite article that retrospectively save the famous lines from being tautologous). 

No, not even Armstrong’s “Tranquility base here.  The Eagle has landed.”  No, that was the second communication. 

The first rather prosaic words, from lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, whose mother’s maiden name was prophetically Moon, were “Contact light.  Motor control to ‘ auto”.  Engine arm off.”   One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Remembered  By Piers Bizony.

Like all the  famous events we “remember”  a poteen of moonshine seems to overlay the pattern of history.  What we think we remember about the first moon landing  ain’t necessarily so, especially if we were living in New Zealand at the time and we think we recall the live video shots of Armstrong’s first foot on the moon, while Aldrin waited his turn to descend from the lunar module and Michael Collins was over the moon, like the rest of America, in the command module. The fact is that the video pictures weren’t live on this side of the Tasman.  

The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, which he articulated to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

As has often been pointed out, the goal has a clear outcome and timeframe and caught America’s imagination in a time when the USA was on the back foot in the Cold War’s sublimated space race after Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit less than six weeks earlier stretched the space lead Sputnik had created  for Russia in 1957.

And this morning, on the 40th anniversary of the moonwalk,  there was the clear yellow tinged disc of the new moon just above the horizon!  It’s still hard to believe (and obviously impossible for the conspiracy nutters) that people have been to the moon and left footprints frozen in time in the airless and thus windless lunar surface to prove it.

 NASA’s  current Constellation Project encompasses a new project — the Moon base and the conquest of Mars. But it is not rocket science to realise that in straitened economic times  the astronomical cost involved (at least US$150 Billion) is as big an obstacle as the scientific and technological challenges of building and inhabiting a lunar platform as a staging post to Mars.

I had dinner in Christchurch last week with two NASA people.  Jonette is working on Lunar Surface Systems and her husband Mark on engineering support. In September, their friend and colleague Dr Jack Bacon, NASA engineer working on the International Space Platform and noted futurist and author will be back in New Zealand speaking at conferences and in house meetings. He will make two public presentations in Wellington and Christchurch on The Parallel Bang-The explosive growth of human understanding in the 21st century.  More at:


Apollo 11 – Video of Touchdown and Radio Transcript  

BBC Moon Week – Three Drunk Monkeys 

Buzz- a bad rap?    Buzz Aldrin’s Rocket Experience with Snoop Dog and Talib Kweli

Lyall Lukey  20 July 09

A Wake Up Call not a Wake

July 19, 2009

“He was bitter and tearful, but he took the news that he was going to die calmly…” Isabel Collins

When they told me I had not had cancer, it knocked me off balance.  Now I cannot do anything.”  Philip Collins

Ordinary influenza, perhaps, or maybe even Swine Flu, but the dreaded big C is not the diagnosis we want to hear when we have lost our appetite. We’re very likely to lose our savoir-faire as well as our avoirdupois. 

When Englishman Philip Collins was told two years ago that he had gall bladder cancer and had only six months to live he chucked his job in, cashed up his pension and bought himself a Triumph motorcycle so he could enjoy the time he had left to him and try some new experiences.

When, a year later, living on what he thought was borrowed time, he got the galling news that the “inoperable tumour” was actually a somewhat less than fatal abscess in his gall bladder, he was thrown totally off balance. He had been prepared to die, and had planned his own funeral, which was to feature his new motorcycle as hearse.  Having reconciled himself to his early departure from this mortal coil he now had to totally re-readjust to the prospect of staying on it for sometime.

Now he has trouble preparing to live. He had bought his impending widow a Ford Focus. Focus is exactly what he is now having difficulty with. Welcome back Phil to the real world.

The ability to focus is one of the most important self-management skills. It enables us to realise dreams and achieve the goals.  Life events-or non-events-can cause us to lose our focus as if a stone had shattered the telescope we had so carefully calibrated to peer through.

Winning the Big Wednesday lottery-or watching the roulette wheel spin and your ball teetering on the edge of dropping into  a number somewhat less than three score and 10-rather knocks  the tripod off balance.

On the other hand, if they are not too overwhelming, some live or death events can sharpen the focus and help plot a new life passage.

In that category I’d place my recent coronary. Because the whole thing was out of the blue and the operation to stent open my two blocked coronary arteries was over within 5 hours of the diagnosed heart attack, I had little time for any real fear and indeed was an interested, if concerned, spectator of my own serious but only discomforting  medical episode (the angioplasty procedure is done while you are awake, the better to monitor the arterial drain unblocking process.)

Others, with more time to ponder gloomy news, have much more of a challenge. We know the power of aboriginal bone pointing. How many people, who have had the Western witch doctor point the mortality bone at them, have obligingly and obediently  proceeded to die within the allotted span of time?

Not Phil Collins.  Now he is very much alive he is suing the National Health Service. His real crisis now is an existentialist one-the transition from an impending wake to a surprise wake up call. Now he has the quotidian challenge of just staying alive.


Take the (free) How long have I got quiz

Get some irreverent terminal advice:  George Carlin – On Death And Dying 

Listen to the other Phil Collins’ timely reminders:   another day in paradise

Cheer up with the Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive (Full Version)

Lyall Lukey 19 July 2009

Michael Jackson joins the Passing Parade

July 11, 2009

” Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”  Michael Jackson  Thriller

In the American radio soaps of the 1940s no one got pregnant-they expected a blessed event. These days no one dies-they merely pass.

What were you doing when Michael Jackson passed?  I was returning to the office after a  post coronary earth walk and got the news hot from a colleague who had just been texted or twittered (or both) by a distraught teenage daughter.

I can tell you a few of my other What were you doing when… passing parade moments if you’ll remember yours:

JFK in 1963-I was in the bath on a Saturday morning getting ready for a friend’s wedding  (no cheap jokes about Saturday bath days and having one whether I needed it or not.  Now it was one wedding and a funeral and I was pretty upset. Kennedy has got us through the Cuban Crisis the year before).

Elvis in 1977 -I landed in L.A. the day after he died and the loss in Los Angeles was palpable. His early recording career coincided with my high school years and gauche dancing transition from the  Waltz  and the Fox Trot (with a second name like mine I won’t even mention the Gay Gordons)  to R&R and the Twist.

Princess Di in 1997 -I was at home preparing for our first SmartNet event. (It was about the time Mother Teresa died. I understood the popular outpouring of grief for the late Princess, but was slightly miffed that the gritty Saint of Calcutta, who I had interviewed live in 1978 after the big Indian floods, got far fewer in memorium column inches to have her heart-warming story told than did the now dead English Rose).

It was immediately after President Kennedy’s death that the morbid wwydw… game began. This was the same year that English aristocratic refugee Nancy Mitford, then living in the United States, wrote The American Way of Death. This monumental work chronicled in wry and sly detail how the Cost of Dying was escalated by guilt-edged funeral parlours with their galaxy of egregious embalmers, unctuous undertakers, costly coffins, memorial park property plutocrats  and assorted funereal flunkeys who extracted large sums from small plots in demographically divided cemeteries. Not to mention the associated high-priced florists, casket makers, vault manufacturers and monumental masons who followed in the Grim Reaper’s slipstream.

People still read books then: the first edition of “The American Way of Death” sold out in a single day, which showed that it had hit a live nerve, though there was a deathly hush all over the world from the  funeral  industry.

Mitford revised it in 1998-just a little too early to catch the extra multimedia dimensions and new media now employed to digitally memorialize the duly departed, with abbreviated emoticons and  endless twittering without a dusk to silence the dirge.

It is no doubt a reflection of my advancing years that while I followed with one eye the bizarre pre-funeral heavenly talk of Michael as the Father, the Son-and after the YouTube apparition at Neverland-the Holy Ghost, I did not feel the same sense of loss as when Buddy Holly or Elvis  died (or retrospectively, because I hadn’t heard of her until well after she died and then became a posthumous star, Eva Cassidy).

As you might expect, Michael Jackson’s funeral was a hi tech, high production value show biz event, although his father’s new Blue Ray record label venture missed the showboat, though not the promotional opportunity.  Even the prayers seemed scripted; was it just my imagination, or did the preacher’s bowed head and the almost closed eyes have a direct line of sight to the discretely concealed divine autocue?

I only caught a few minutes of the live service, but that included seeing what was apparently one of the few really spontaneous acts, the teary tribute from his daughter Paris.  Otherwise there were the (more than) usual emollient epithets and epigrams. Graver epitaphs will no doubt follow.

I don’t want to pan the lost boy Michael Jackson (he was more Lost Boy than Peter Pan). He was obviously a top entertainer who, at the time of new video technology, brought a whole new visual dimension to his performances and multimedia postproduction. It’s just that his music, even as a five-year-old he sang with his siblings, didn’t synchronise with my crucial adolescent and  early adulthood passages.

Music, like smells, induces instant time travel, taking us back to testosterone and endorphin laden experiences, or at least to the hopes and dreams of a younger self. The Moon Walk I remember best is Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s, 40 years ago this month,  not Michael Jackson’s in 1983.

I quite understand that for other people, whose early life passages were in sync with his musical career, his music was much more thrilling than for me.

The  Man In The Mirror is certainly Gone Too Soon.



Michael Jackson’s  Moonwalk YouTube Legacy: 

 Michael Jackson-Thriller-song length, plus occult disclaimer:

Michael Jackson’s father not missing a chance on CNN to plug his own business interests at the BET awards. (His own personal Best Bet, with a little legal help, is at the 3.23 minute mark):  

Eva Cassidy’s version of Judy Garland’s favourite Over The Rainbow-a wistful and hauntingly beautiful song which could be the epitaph of all entertainers whose lives and careers have been cut off at the pass:

Lyall Lukey  11 July 09

DIY Science: Old and New Kiwi Stars

July 5, 2009

“The dinosaurs were alive when this star exploded and the light travelled here, and I was the first one to see it.”  Stuart Parker 

 Two recent Press items featured the work of New Zealand scientific amateurs who both got the jump on the professionals in their chosen fields of study although neither had specialist academic training or institutional support.

The first, by Press reporter Martin Van Beynen, recounted the story behind a recent entry in the scientific diary of a dairy farmer. The supernova prosaically named SN2009GJ exploded 60 million years. When the light finally reached Earth a fortnight ago, Stuart Parker, in a high tech bloke’s shed in Oxford, was the first to spot it, with a little help from a 14 inch telescope with a digital camera, coupled to computer scanners.  

That’s Oxford North Canterbury, New Zealand not Oxford, England and Stuart Parker is a dairy farmer and an amateur astronomer, not an academic astrophysicist. After 15 years hunting supernovas, the long hours invested paid off and he recorded the first trace of the defunct star.

SN2009GJ exploded around the time when dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate animals of earth for about 100 million years, were about to become extinct, leaving their avian relations the birds to it. 

The second item was the news that New Zealand’s best known palaeontologist, self-taught Havelock North fossil hunter Joan Wiffen, the Dinosaur Lady, died in Hastings, NZ, last week.

Joan Wiffen had only a brief secondary education – her father believed higher education was wasted on girls. and she was expected to get married and have a family. That she duly did, and she and her husband took up rock collecting as a hobby. “I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.”  That she also did, with spectacular results. 

Her dig at Maungahouanga, the Valley of the Dragons, in Hawke’s Bay was the first known site where dinosaurs lived in New Zealand. After some smaller finds, she cracked the big one literally by using explosives on a bone-laden large boulder and a coil of No.8 fencing wire to fashion a flying fox to extract chunks of rock bearing the first major mosasaur specimen in 1974.  

She went on to find bones from half a dozen or so more different sea and land dwelling dinosaurs, including the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga valley in northern Hawke’s Bay in 1975, an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs.

Her scientific endeavours included arduous and patient fossicking for fossils out in the field, forensic-like fossil preparation from fragments, and writing up taxonomic descriptions and interpretations. She put New Zealand on the palaeontological map with its own Jurassic –or at least Cretaceous-Park.

She also conveyed her contagious love of her subject by telling the story of dinosaurs downunder in many popular articles, public lectures and school presentations.   Dinosaurs have become a celebrated part of popular culture world-wide and her work contributed to this.

 Putting it in the long hours, as both the amateurs did in a most professional way,  is the kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his recent book Outliers  to explain the reason why some people are so accomplished and so extraordinary.  He adduced his 10,000 Hours Rule: the key to achievement in any domain is not just- or not even- qualifications but time spent on task, whether practice or the “real thing”.

As Gladwell points out, when you were born is pretty important too, in terms of culture and community, and, we could add, the state of current knowledge and technology.

Galileo had to first improve the rudimentary telescope he used to track the four moons of Jupiter and then combat the hostile geocentric view of the universe still held by most scientists and clerics in the early part of the 17th century with his earth shaking heliocentric insights.

In the digital age the price of technology has reduced and its power increased so there is a  more democratic access to scientific tools which allowed Stuart Parker to be a do-it-yourself astronomer.

In the case of Joan Wiffen, whose discoveries preceded the digital revolution, it was her equally eagle-eyed scrutiny of paleontological detritus, in both found and dynamited postures, that yielded up the secrets of some of the dinosaurs that once inhabited  New Zealand and its surrounding waters to the surprise of all of us.

Her amateur work initially provoked the scepticism if not the scorn of professionals. For that reason, when her first “dinosaurs in New Zealand” discovery was released to the scientific community in 1980 she diplomatically and rather cleverly gave the honours of breaking the news to Dr Ralph Molnar, a noted vertebrate palaeontologist. She obviously thought that the bones might be more digestible  coming from a reputable scientist rather than an elderly housewife.

However, her work was eventually recognized in the annals of science and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1994 and the following year a CBE.

The public recognition of Stuart Parker’s discovery, in competition with 9,000 observatories around the world, is just starting. Other forms of recognition no doubt lie in the future.

Apart from their dedication and bloody minded perseverance, what shines through is their enthusiasm for their chosen field of study. The late Joan Wiffen was a legend in her own lifetime and Stuart Parker is now a real star.

From heavens above to dinosaurs downunder, they are both a great inspiration to young and old to follow their inquisitive passions and undertake scientific enquiry and exploration no matter what their scientific background or training.

Galileo, held by many to be the father of modern science, would be pleased to welcome into his family these self-taught amateur scientists.

Lyall Lukey 5/7/09

Swiss Watch or Swiss Cheese? The Jobs Summit revisited.

July 2, 2009

“It is difficult to love a quartz controlled watch or clock. Very often, the cases do not even open to show the module (the term “movement” would not be proper, because, in the digital version, nothing moves). There is absolutely nothing to see. Whereas a movement, is another thing altogether! A fine movement, in particular if it is complicated, has the art and the grace of a living thing. The wheels whirl and engage…”                          D. S. Landes   L’heure qu’il est

Perhaps someone has been winding up Mark Weldon about the apparent lack of real progress in all but a few areas since the national Jobs Summit in March.

The CEO of NZX and Chair of the Jobs Summit says that the ideas generated at the Summit to pull the economy out of the recession were “like the cogs of a Swiss watch” individually insignificant but, when taken together, they should produce an appreciable effect, though it would up to two years, for their effectiveness to be gauged. “They’re not huge initiatives but, in aggregate, will start to retool the economy,”…

But he may need to watch his watch similies and revert to the sports analogies he often uses as a former Olympic swimmer before he gets out of his depth. 

Swiss watch making is one of the rare sectors that continue to employ skills that have elsewhere vanished while still finding new chronometric horizons to explore. About a million highly priced Swiss mechanical watches are still produced each year, employing retro technology and old craftsmanship: they look better but are less accurate.

 But most Swiss watches today are electronic with quartz “movements”. What is crystal clear is that electronic “movements” have few or no moving parts, let alone cogs, as they use the electric effect in a tiny quartz crystal to provide a stable time base for a mostly electronic movement.

 One can understand the fascination with mechanical watches, the wheels whirling and engaging in exquisite but ananachronistic industrial age fashion. They are a Newtonian metaphor not relevant to a post-Einsteinian universe and a global economy. 

The big problem with the cogs analogy, set in the context of New Zealand’s imperative need for innovation and productivity, is that it reminds us that, having pioneered digital technology, Swiss watchmakers were notoriously slow to adopt it.

When the new quartz oscillator technology was first developed by Swiss firms and offered to the Swiss industry, most Swiss manufacturers refused to embrace the technology. Others elsewhere, especially the Japanese, saw the advantage and further developed the nascent technology. The 1970s and early 1980s was the low point of the Swiss watch industry which chose to remain focused on traditional mechanical watch technology, with a good line of cuckoo clocks on the side, rather than embrace the new quartz watch technology.

 By trying to protect the old technology they missed the opportunity to be leaders in the new innovation. Of course, eventually, the success of the Japanese and others in adopting digital watch technology was followed by the belated but successful Swatch countermove by the Swiss, but by that time they were playing black in the timekeeping game of chess.

 What has this got to do with the Job Summit?

 The Summit’s  focus was too shortsighted and the time span too constrainted to the election cycle.  

 The top Summit idea, a 9-day fortnight has only saved 345 jobs temporarily in 25 participating firms. The mute button was soon pushed to turn off the enthusiastic discussion about the opportunity to upskill people in the downturn. The initial idea, which attracted support from union representatives like Laila Harré, was probably consigned to the too hard basket because it was conceived in traditional training terms, involving outside providers in traditional training, at a time when the tertiary sector was under pressure from increasing rolls caused by the rise in unemployment.

The bigger message of challenging organisations to be more innovative in order to reposition their companies post-recession, and supporting them to do so, seems hardly to have been sent let alone acted upon. The pathway to the future is paved by “living organisations,” each  listening to the voices of customers  and adapting and evolving through new products and services and ways of working , rather than staying trapped in a time warp like 1980s Swiss watch manufacturers and running the risk of dying.

 In terms of the opportunities and threats confronting the New Zealand economy, perhaps the analogy should be with Swiss cheese, not Swiss watches

Originally propounded by British psychologist James T. Reason in 1990, the Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation is a model used in the risk analysis and risk management of human systems which has since gained widespread acceptance and use in  healthcare, aviation and emergency service organizations.

It is sometimes called the cumulative act effect- though it could be equally called the cumulative non-action effect.

The Swiss Cheese model includes, in the causal sequence of human failures that leads to an accident or an error, both active failures and latent failures. In the model, an organization’s defences against failure are modelled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of Swiss cheese. The holes in the cheese slices represent individual weaknesses in individual parts of the system, and are continually varying in size and position in all slices. The system as a whole produces failures when all of the holes in each of the slices momentarily align, like a conjunction of the planets, so that a hazard or a threat “passes through” all of the synchronised holes in all of the defences, leading to a failure.

There are certainly a lot of holes in the Government’s strategic approach to the recession and in the country’s much vaunted “innovation system”.

Mark Weldon is confident that New Zealand will come out of the downturn very well, with a better economy. It is true that to date, anyway, the effects of the financial and economic tsunami are attenuated by the time the ripples reach our southern shores.

But confidence is a necessary but not a sufficient factor in individual organisations repositioning themselves to be well-placed as the economy picks up.

Just as the previous Labour government has been accused of squandering its nine years of largely good economic times, perhaps other future commentators will look back and say that the reactive “rolling maul” adopted by the  new National Government, without articulating and communicating the bigger game plan, is squandering the opportunity to lift the level of the national economic game through inspiring  political and corporate leadership focussed at the level of individual organisations in key industries.

 A big factor in the Swiss watch crisis of the 70s and 80s was a lack of conviction on the part of the industry leadership for either the need for or the possibility of the coexistence of electronic and mechanical watches, by the same brands, in the same markets.

Nicolas Hayek, the saviour of the Swiss watch industry in the Crisis of the 80s, has warned that there could be another crisis in Swiss watch industry unless there is more innovation and investment. “…there was no innovation, no new development…. the Swiss watch industry will suffer exactly the same problems it had before and it will go down.”

Meanwhile, back in the Switzerland of the Pacific, whichever way you measure it, the countdown is on and time is running out in respect to innovation and new developments.   It is time for the Prime Minister to articulate a clear big game plan. The inspiring team talk can’t wait until half-time or we’ll be sucking on lemons. Watch this space.